Crop to Cup: Innovative coffee roaster talks beans, naturally

by groundwork coffee
on March 08, 2013
with 0 comments

 From The Aspen Times.....

It was 1990 when Groundwork Coffee Co.'s founder, Richard Karno, started his rare-book-and-cafe business by roasting his own coffee. At that time, the demand from local restaurants became so great that he began roasting around the clock. Shortly thereafter, Groundwork went on to become one of the first certified organic coffee roasters in Southern California, focusing on sustainable, relationship-based and organic coffee sourcing. Today, Groundwork Coffee Co. has pioneered its way to become the largest organic coffee roaster in L.A., with seven cafe locations distributing whole beans and coffee extracts nationally in places like Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and REI.

Aspen Times Weekly: You began roasting coffee organically over a decade ago. Why did you feel so strongly about pursuing an organic business when it was such a rarity at the time?

Richard Karno: At that time, it was pretty well known in the industry that coffee is the third-most sprayed agricultural crop in the world after tobacco and cotton. Conventional coffee trees on large institutional farms are treated with a combination of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides. While it's not proven that these chemicals find their way into the roasted bean, they definitely find their way into the eco-systems of the areas they are grown in. I didn't what my business to contribute to the problem.

ATW: In your experience, how has the coffee business grown or changed in the last decade?

RK: In the late 1980s and early 1990s the coffee industry was doing such a terrible job on the whole that the only way to go was up. This allowed for a lot of experimentation by smaller entrepreneurs who were trying to make better coffee and serve it in a more interesting environment. Today, coffee is a more mature business, but I'm also a little concerned the industry is in danger of becoming more sizzle than steak as the theatre of coffee preparation gets more absurd and exclusionary to the average customer.

ATW: In your opinion, do you find consumers more apt to choose a locally sourced, organic product that follows the farm-to-table method as opposed to a mass-manufactured product like Starbucks?

RK: I don't know how many consumers are that conscientious about their buying decisions, but companies like Starbucks have done an excellent job of raising the bar on coffee from its very lows in the 1970s to today. Many people don't like taking risks on local establishments; the key is to cultivate your locals and let your reputation spread organically — pardon the pun.

ATW: What coffee(s) do you plan to bring to the Cocktail Classic here in Snowmass? What message do you hope to get across during your tasting?

RK: I'm going to bring a representative sample of a light, medium and dark roast as well as the Java Juice espresso concentrate used as a replacement for hot espresso in blended drinks. If there is a point to be made, it's that given the amount of high-quality coffee available today, it's very easy to offer good coffee and well-made coffee drinks to customers. There's simply no excuse for making lousy coffee.

ATW: If there were one thing you would want customers to know about organically roasted coffee, what would it be?

RK: I'd want them to know that coffee is really a miraculous crop and that there are literally billions of coffee trees required to grow the beans necessary to meet the worldwide demand. Yet, despite all the steps and variables, we are in kind of a golden age of coffee. Customers now can choose certified organic coffee where every step in the supply chain is regulated and certified to ensure that no chemicals or agents come in contact. Simply put, life is too short for bad coffee.

Why Organic Coffee?

by groundwork coffee
on January 24, 2013
with 0 comments

Ever since 1995, when Groundwork started exclusively carrying organic coffees, people have asked me, “why organic and is there a real difference between organic and conventional coffee?”

“Why not,” and “yes.” Blog over, everyone go home.  Oh, if only it were that easy. In reality the answers to those questions are quite complicated. Yet, they represent a microcosmic slice of the entire coffee industry, which itself is based on an M.C. Esher-like interrelationship between growers, importers, roasters, brewers and customers. Each of these groups has a profound impact on the other, which amplify each other and reverberate all the way down the supply chain.

And like any good debate pertaining to a commodity with worldwide sales, the issue of organic vs conventionally grown coffee is buffeted on all sides by costs, practicality, science, pseudoscience, customer sentiment, hype, hope, and good intentions that often blithely pave the way to hell.

Faced with this inexactitude I’ve been guilty of oversimplifying. In order to save time and breath I’ve often trotted out the scary and pedantic fact that coffee is the third most sprayed agricultural crop in the world, following up with the rhetorical coup de grace that the top two crops are tobacco and cotton, which of course are not really even food.

But these statements are rich with contradictions, assumptions and maddening conundrums.
Yes, conventional coffees are often sprayed with horrific amounts of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides. But even use of a synthetic fertilizer can disqualify a coffee crop from selling as organic. Additionally, many small stakeholder coffee farmers are growing de facto organic coffee simply because they don’t have the cash to purchase pesticides in the first place. It follows that they also don’t have the scratch to pay for organic inspections, certifications or land to create enough distance between themselves and their neighbors who are using pesticides. Any one of these problems can disqualify the coffees from being labeled organic, leaving the poor farmer with organic coffee beans selling at conventional prices.

The organic coffee farmer faces other problems, too. Coffee trees, especially those that are organically raised, grow best under a canopy of indigenous shade trees. Yet, many small farmers don’t have the excess land to devote half their acreage to non-cash crop trees. Those non-paying shade trees have to be cared for as well, and the organic coffee trees require much more TLC without their sprays and modern fertilizer than conventional trees.

Does this mean that only large, wealthy coffee farms can afford to grow organic coffee and reap the higher prices they command? Well, no. Many medium-sized coffee operations have committed their resources to organic farming. Many co-ops as well have helped their members attain the proper credentials to sell their coffees as organic.

As for the health issue, yes conventional coffees are sprayed with all those nasty chemicals. But the coffee beans or seeds are then separated from their parchment cover, pulp and the outer skin, washed, dried, and roasted at temperatures exceeding 400°F for approximately 12-15 minutes. Moisture inside the beans turns to steam and begins to evaporate at 212°F. Then the beans begin to brown as what’s known as the Maillard reaction begins. This browning reaction helps develop flavors and aromas and begins as starches are being converted into sugars (around 300°F). Finally, pyrolysis, or chemical decomposition in coffee begins at around 385°F and starts the caramelization phase of coffee.

It’s hard to imagine that even if chemicals were absorbed into the green coffee bean as they develop, that they would survive the roasting process intact.

So what’s the real point of drinking organic coffee if the final product is not demonstrably healthier than conventional coffee? Here’s a thought; Think about the farmers and their land for a moment.  Picture a farmer in his shorts and sandals with a large chemical tank strapped to his back and woefully short spray hose in hand as he walks among his coffee trees literally fogging his orchard with a witches brew of toxic chemicals. His farm’s water source is probably nearby. The same water source his family uses for drinking, bathing and washing. His children don’t have a mall to hang out at so they play on the farm when they are not actively put to work picking the coffee beans. Now think of the trees, the animals and birds that live and feed in the trees and how many survive by eating the crawly little things the farmer is busy trying to kill.

Am I implying that all organic farms are Arcadia where man, beasts and bugs happily coexist? Definitely not. The organic farmer often has a lower yield. He has to fight off insects, fungi and other plants that want to take root or feed on his coffee beans without the help of really effective chemicals. He has to deal with inspectors, certifiers, NGOs, not to mention very picky green bean buyers. Finally, the organic coffee farmer has to be one step ahead of nature at all times or lose his crops to the elements. So why do the farmers go to all the trouble? My guess is because they know it’s a healthier business model both literally and figuratively and because we all pay them substantially more for their beans. And, just because something is hard, does that mean it shouldn’t be done?

So what about the taste? Here my own bias is acknowledged, but I sincerely believe that all that extra work on the soil, the trees, and the beans themselves have a cumulative effect to produce a better tasting cup of coffee in almost every instance when compared to similar conventional coffees.  To back up my “research”, Groundwork has the opinions of thousands of customers over the past 18 years who swear by our coffees.

So those are the long answers to a couple of short questions. Not good enough? Did you know coffee is the third most sprayed agricultural crop in the world after tobacco and cotton? 

If You Think, You Can

by groundwork coffee
on January 03, 2013
with 2 comments

Some time ago, we were offered the opportunity to sell Groundwork coffee in a high profile chain of grocery stores. At the time Groundwork didn’t have any standard packaging for retail coffee. All our beans were sold in 5 lb. wholesale bags or customers came to our stores and filled our generic brown 1 lb. coffee bags, themselves. It’s a tactile, interactive experience I recommend to anyone who hasn’t tried it. 

The point is this lack of flashy packaging was intentional. The star of our show has always been the freshly roasted whole bean, slowly degassing its wonderful aroma through the wooden doors of our bulk coffee bins. Pre-packs smacked of shelf-life issues, clever wording, and horror of horrors; “marketing.”

But when opportunity knocked with the prospect of selling pre-packaged coffee to a wider clientele, I stifled my usual reaction, which is to answer the door with a cold bucket of water, and began to think about packaging.

We decided right away not to create yet another foil valve-bag just to have it sit on the grocery shelves along with 25 coffee brands in foil valve-bags. Nor did I like the idea of the 13 oz. “pound” that so many roasters were coming out with. FYI, it’s no coincidence they package in 13 oz. I challenge anyone to do the math and tell me how much that coffee costs per ounce.

Instead we set out to create a “full” one-pound container with a unique style and shape. I’d always admired the compact, yet sturdy look of a 1-pint paint can and we used that as our starting point. Eventually we found a slightly squat, pull-top can made from recyclable cardboard and a plastic over-cap for reuse and storage. Just to be more iconoclastic, we decided on a solid matte black label with color splashed only in the name of the coffee blend.

Unlike a paper coffee bag, the cardboard cans can be reused time and again, which is great because reusing a container 4-5 times is much more environmentally sustainable than recycling after only one use. Also, they’re great for storing junk like pencils, coins, or as a makeshift coffin for a deceased hamster (it’s a long story).

The rest is history. The cans became so popular they found their way onto our own store shelves. We still have bags available, but there’s little interest in labeling them. People still scoop their own beans from the bins and many refill their empty cans again and again. 

So, with apologies to both Descartes and the Little Engine that could, remember: “If you think, you can.”

Goodbye 2012, hello 2013

by groundwork coffee
on December 31, 2012
with 1 comments

Goodbye 2012, hello 2013. 

When looking back on a previous year’s events, the combination of hindsight and human nature often conspire to paint the past year as “challenging,” “interminable,” or just plain “awful.” 2012 with its non-stop political campaign, fiscal cliff drama, chronic underemployment, and most painfully, the recent slaughter of innocents, certainly qualifies as a true Annus Terribilis.

So it’s at times like these, when the New Year is arriving, that I like to think about the business we are in and how Groundwork fits into the larger picture of our daily lives. To put it simply, we supply good, fresh coffee to people who want it.

There’s something comforting in that. After all, there are plenty of worse things a company can set out to do. For instance we don’t make or sell potentially harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol, or even high fructose corn syrup. The worst our product can do is cause an extra pit stop or two on a long road trip. But what’s an extra pit stop or two when on the whole, coffee, especially the sustainable, organic kind we specialize in has many more proven health benefits than drawbacks.

We don’t earn billions while making virtually nothing but digital blips on a computer screen as bond traders and the Wall Street crowd does while arrogantly proclaiming themselves, “Masters of the Universe.” Instead, we earn our keep buying, processing, and preparing one of nature’s true magical crops. A miraculous, beneficial plant that provides more than 26 million men, women, and children worldwide with the means for living. Of course, we’d call ourselves “Masters of the Universe” but “Roast Master” somehow seems more exalted.

At Groundwork, being good neighbors is not only the polite thing to do. It’s part of our business model. If our stores don’t add to the charm, convenience or ambiance of their neighborhood, people won’t show up, we’ll close down and in two weeks a sign with a green cross will appear above the door, (albeit that would be a welcome change for many of our customers).

But the goal of all Groundwork stores is to become an integral part of the neighborhood experience; both a store and a gathering place where people feel comfortable running in for a quick fill up, or hanging out, just because. So with 2013 arriving, I’ll be bracing myself for super storms, debt ceiling fights, conflicts and strife. But, I’ll be doing so with a healthy, sustainable cup of coffee in hand. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a nearby store with a green cross above the door.

Summertime and Hot Coffee Go Cold

by groundwork coffee
on July 04, 2012
with 1 comments


It’s 80+ degrees outside, the sun doesn’t go down until 9 p.m. and you can’t find a parking space within a mile of the beach. It must be summer in L.A. or as I like to call it: short sleeve shirt season. That’s in contrast to long sleeve season, which basically sums up our winter weather requirements.
It’s also cold coffee season and at Groundwork we offer a variety of options for people who still want coffee but want it cold and likely through a straw. By now most people have heard of cold-press or Toddy coffee. Basically they are the same thing, only Toddy is the name for the manufacturer of a cold press system and over the years their company name became generic, like Xerox or Band Aids or my favorite; Jockey Shorts.
At Groundwork we’ve been making cold-press coffee for more than 20 years. Why? Because it makes a great iced coffee drink. We start with a giant paper filter about the size of a large grocery sack. We line up 10-12 5-gallon coffee containers, insert the filters and then fill each one with 5 lbs. of fresh roasted and ground coffee. We then add cold, not hot, carefully filtered water to the top of each container. Then…we do nothing. We simply wait 24 hours and let the grounds slowly brew into the cold water. This slow and low temperature extraction process results in a coffee concentrate that is heavy-bodied and low in acidity. It’s great for iced coffee because the lower acidity seems naturally sweeter to the human tongue.  We even bottle it for home and away drinking.
And if you prefer sweet, our Vietnamese iced coffee is just the ticket. We mix our Java Juice 100% organic coffee concentrate with filtered water and sweetened condensed milk. The result is a strong, yet milky sweet concoction that can be almost addictive.
Java Juice concentrate is also the key coffee ingredient in groundwork’s extensive line of ice blended drinks. Whoever first decided to add coffee, chocolate, milk and ice together and mix it all in a blender deserves some kind of special reward for discovering what should have been obvious. I’m not saying they should get the same recognition as the first brave soul to work up the nerve to eat an artichoke (would you eat one of those if you didn’t know what it was? Have you ever seen a wild artichoke?). But blended drinks are almost too much fun. You can add almost any combination to coffee and ice and deliciousness results.
The ultimate indulgence is our espresso milkshake: 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream, half and half milk, and a double shot of Java Juice coffee concentrate. When you like your calories and caffeine in equal excess, this is the drink to get.
Of course groundwork also offers iced chai, (chai tea is a redundancy since chai means “tea”), a wide variety of iced teas and recently hand-brewed iced teas individually made on demand and a dizzying array of juices, sodas or not so plain Nika water, whose proceeds go toward insuring drinkable water for developing societies.
In short just because the weather is warm doesn’t mean your drinks have to be. So find a parking spot, ride, walk or run into any of our stores and grab a straw. We’ll do the rest.
Richard Karno
Groundwork Coffee Co. 

Choosing Coffee....What An Ordeal!

by Groundwork Coffee
on February 29, 2012
with 2 comments

Coffee is one of the most complex food items we consume each day. It has more flavor molecules than red wine, is grown around the globe in countless varieties, and marketed and sold in every form imaginable. At the same time, coffee is simplicity personified. The seeds from a coffee tree are separated from their surrounding cherry, processed, cleaned and then heated or roasted until they are fit to brew.

Of course everything in between is where all the romance, technology, hype and heartbreak fit in. Coffee crops are affected by origin, species, soil quality, growing altitude, weather, blight, harvest technique, processing methods, and countless other factors.

The roasting method is also vitally important to the final quality of the coffee. Too much heat and you get tipping or burnt ends of the beans. Too little heat and the roast takes too long and the beans assume an unpleasant baked quality. Don’t over or under fill the roasting machine. Don’t cool the beans too slowly. Use water quench, don’t use water quench. Drum roasters vs. fluid bed roasters, infrared heat vs. ambient heat, pre-blend vs. post-blend. These are just some of the  issues coffee roasters wrestle with daily and from the strum und drang posted on roasting message boards you’d think we’re dealing with life and death here.

Yet, fascinating as all this may be to some people, the average customer walking in off the street just wants a bag or can of coffee to take home and brew up in the morning, knowing it’s fresh, tastes good, wasn’t a rip off and didn’t destroy the environment or impoverish local populations. That sounds reasonable to us folks at groundwork.

So what do we tell a customer when they walk in and are confronted with an assortment of more than 24 different blends or varieties of coffee? Do we launch into a treatise on the advantages of Strictly Hard Bean Guatemala or do we lecture them on the unique qualities of a dry process Ethiopian Sidamo. I don’t think so. The irony of standing in a caffeine wonderland and having your eyes glaze over would be too much to bear.

So at groundwork we have developed an extremely simple, yet quite reliable method for helping a customer choose the coffee they want to purchase. The first question we ask (or should) is: Do you like a heavy bodied coffee that you can feel and taste on the back of your tongue, or do you like the brighter, lighter coffee that lights up the front of your mouth. Depending on the answer we can move to the next question and for the most part, the answer to the first question can narrow the issue down to a single continent or hemisphere of coffee origin. You see, coffee is grown around the globe within the equatorial belt that runs between the Tropic of Cancer to the north and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south. Virtually all the world’s coffee supply is grown along this geographic belt. Further south or north  bad things like frost or drought make it almost impossible to grow coffee. Of course those things still happen within the growing belt but with far less consistency for now (Hello global warming).

Back to the first question: If the answer is “heavy” our highly trained baristas should wheel you away from Central America, South America, and Africa and land you somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. This is where you find coffees such as Java, Sumatra, Timor, Celebes Kolassi and Papua New Guinea. All of these coffees share a common attribute of having heavy body and light brightness or acidity (more on acidity in a later post). This is real spoon sticking coffee, mud, Joe, the kind of coffee that can take a beating like a pre-1970’s Chevy. It‘s also delicious and will never confuse you about what you are drinking.

Now if the answer had been “brighter, lighter”, then the coffee tour would have most likely stopped at the African continent. This is the birthplace of coffee (man too apparently…coincidence?) Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Tanzania, Rwanda are all East African countries that produce wonderful bright, lighter coffees with higher acidity. Think a dash of Fruit Loops in your cup. Although it is impossible not to generalize too much, East African coffee by and large have more fruity notes and are tasted on the forward areas of the human tongue. Want to make your own great coffee blend? Buy some good heavy-bodied Indonesian coffee such as Java and mix it 50/50 with a bright, fruity African coffee named after a Yemeni port, Moka.  Presto, Mocha Java, one of the oldest and most popular blends in the world. Of course you also could have blended Sumatra with Ethiopian. Or Celebes (Sulawesi with Tanzania), but the point is the same.

What about Central American and South American you may ask. Well, through a combination of same species, altitude, soil and climate, most Central American coffees derive a sweet, medium bright quality to go along with medium body. Of course, intrepid growers have been cross breeding and experimenting with different combinations to come up with a wide variety of taste profiles (witness Panama Esmeralda Geisha, an Ethiopian transplant that thrived on the high side of a Panamanian volcano and produced the world record price for coffee three years running). But again, the norm is that Central American coffee is less heavy-bodied than Indonesian beans and less acidic than African coffee beans.

South American coffees have a wider flavor profile than those from Central America, yet they still fall within manageable parameters. Ever wonder why Colombian coffee was so popular for so long? (Okay, you have to be over 40 to remember this.) It wasn’t Juan Valdez and his mangy donkey. It was because Colombian coffee became known for having a flat-line flavor profile. It is distinctive for its even body, even sweetness, and even acidity. This should be construed as a good thing, and indeed it is. What’s not to like? Brazilian coffee, when it’s not low grade, robusta species, grown on mowed over rain forest land, is nice and earthy with enough body to be a favorite in espresso blends, and Bolivia and Peru have both been producing outstanding varietals for years.

The second question is easier; dark roast, medium or light? Depending on that answer our staff should be able to direct customers to 1-3 choices. From there it’s a matter of sampling until you find the flavor profile that’s right for you. Just don’t ask us to flavor it with some disgusting chemical nightmare like Vanilla Hazelnut or Irish Crème. What the hell is Irish Crème anyway?

So feel free to come in and grab a pound of your favorite varietal, make your own blend, or chose from one of the many groundwork blends we created at the expense of countless hours of slurping and spitting in our cupping lab.

Just remember; at groundwork, it’s “just” coffee.

-Richard Karno, Groundwork Founder 

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